Finding the Ghost of Hank Williams in Montgomery, Alabama

Road Music

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Finding the Ghost of Hank Williams in Montgomery, Alabama

A light rain was falling as I stood before Hank Williams’ grave. It was the end of the day at the end of February, chilly and damp, appropriate weather for visiting a cemetery. My wife and I were the only people on this lonely knoll on the east side of Montgomery, and dark woolen clouds lay across the Alabama sky.

But the sun peeked in under that blanket, and we could read the vertical, gray-marble slab: “’PRAISE THE LORD—I SAW THE LIGHT’ HANK WILLIAMS.” Etched into the marble were slanting lines of sunshine descending from the semi-circles of clouds. A bronze plaque depicted Williams with his right leg propped up on a bar stool, an acoustic guitar on his right thigh, and his cowboy hat at a rakish tilt.

The juxtaposition of the hymn lyric and the tavern furniture provided a good summation of the man’s paradoxes. His aspirations were heavenly, but his reality was earthy. He had problems with women, problems with booze and problems with a body that kept giving out on him—and gave out for good on New Year’s Day, 1953, when he was only 29.

Williams became a star in Shreveport and Nashville, but he became an artist in Montgomery. He was born and raised in Alabama’s Butler County, in the logging region south of Montgomery, but his family moved to the state capital when he was 13. There he started playing guitar on the streets, won a talent show at the Empire Theatre, earned his own semi-weekly radio show on WSFA and published his first book, Original Songs by Hank Williams, The Drifting Cowboy a pocket book of lyrics that sold for 35 cents.

Like Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Bill Monroe before him, Williams grew up in the rural South but found work in the urban South—and it was that collision of sensibilities that shaped classic country music. These artists tended to write lyrics that evoked an idealized rural past and put them to music as jittery and jumpy as their new city homes. There were thousands of displaced farm families just like them, and this music of longing for the past and eagerness for the future ’s new thrills and possibilities resonated with them like nothing else.

It may seem a mystery how Williams created so much revolutionary music is so short a lifespan, but the clues are still to be found in Alabama. In Georgiana, you can visit his boyhood home, a boarding house run by his mother Lillian, Thigpen’s Log Cabin dance hall, where Williams played, and the GA-ANA Theater, where the 16-year-old Williams led the Drifting Cowboys in a 1939 concert. But it’s in Montgomery that the story truly comes to life.

The suburban sprawl surrounding Montgomery is new and ever-growing, but the downtown hasn’t changed much and neither have the farther-out pine woods. To drive Interstate 65 between Birmingham and Mobile is to realize how empty much of Alabama still is. It was emptier still in the 1920s and 1930s, when Williams was growing up, and the loneliness of that rural childhood made the encounter with a real city at the age of puberty all the more dramatic, and you can still feel that when you drive into Montgomery.

There you can see Williams’ favorite cheap eatery, Chris’ Hot Dogs (still open for business), the Elite Café (now the Club 50/50) where he gave his last public performance, and the Jeff Davis Hotel (now King William Apartments) where WSFA operated on the second floor. On the site of the Empire Theatre stands the Rosa Parks Museum.

In the middle of downtown, close to the old train depot and the sites of the Empire and WSFA, is the Hank Williams Museum. The small storefront is crammed with impressive Williams memorabilia. Reading his story is not the same as being in the room with physical artifacts from that life.

A rare copy of his original songbook is in one case; his multi-colored, hand-tooled cowboy boots with “Hank” worked into the pattern fill another case. There’s the acoustic guitar he bought with the proceeds from his talent-show victory. One wall is filled with his original MGM 78 rpm singles with the yellow labels; another wall sports his even earlier Sterling singles with the black labels. His hand-painted ties, contracts and stage costumes are also on display.

A continuing-loop video of Williams’ two appearances on The Kate Smith Evening Hour plays is a small theater, and in a nearby glass case is the gray cowboy shirt with V-shaped gray fringe that he wore on the first show. Hanging over the spinet piano from Williams’ Nashville home are several photos of Williams and his family gathered around the same instrument.

But the main reason people visit the museum are the items from the final two days of Williams’ life. The “North Carolina blue” Cadillac convertible with the whitewall tires and the “Flying Goddess” hood ornament is now parked in the museum. Williams was curled up in the back seat of that car under a navy-blue overcoat as a college student named Charles Carr drove him through an ice storm from Nashville toward scheduled gigs in Charleston, West Virginia, and Canton, Ohio.

The weather prevented them from getting to Charleston, and by the time they reached West Virginia on the way to Ohio, Williams was dead. In the museum are that overcoat, his travel briefcase and the stage outfit he was planning to wear. The next day, January 2, his body was in Montgomery at his mother’s boarding house. The January 4 funeral at the City Auditorium (still standing four blocks from the museum) attracted a reported 20,000 mourners. He was buried at the Oakwood Cemetery.

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Photo by Geoffrey Himes

Today the neighborhoods surrounding the graveyard are still filled with the small working-class bungalows built right after World War II during Williams’ heyday. Judging by the ladders attached to the pick-up trucks parked on the street, those houses are still filled with the kind of blue-collar families not long removed from the countryside and still trying to find their place in a new world, still looking for answers in a song. Williams has been dead for 66 years, but his music still endures—and so do the challenges for Americans stranded between country and city.

The rain had left a thin film of moisture on our jackets and on the marble slabs. Across the two-lane blacktop, young boys were playing baseball under electric lights.

Throughout the month of March, Geoffrey Himes will be posting entries from his ongoing travelogue, Road Music

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